This is an emended piece that I wrote on Yom Kippur and the Temple Service which was originally published in the Jerusalem Post Magazine, on Sept 28, 2008.
“For on this day he shall atone for you to purify you; that you may be clean from all your sins before the Lord.” (Lev. 16:30)
This verse appears at the end of the Torah reading for Yom Kippur, when we leave all of our this-worldly pursuits behind, even food and drink, a day that is totally devoted to God, and a day we are promised atonement for our sins. The reading describes in great detail the service of the High Priest in the Temple on this day – the sacrifices, the ablutions, the burning of the incense, the sending of the scapegoat to the desert. Teshuvah, or repentance, is not mentioned as part of the service of the day. According to the verses, it is the sacrificial rites that cleanse the Temple and achieve atonement for the people.
But what is the significance of Yom Kippur when the Temple and these rituals are absent? The Rabbis of the Talmud, in their affirmation of the timeless relevance of the Torah after the destruction of the Temple, declared that in the absence of sacrifices, the day itself achieves atonement provided that it is accompanied by teshuvah (Bavli, Yoma 85b). The “he” of the verse who atones for us is no longer the High Priest offering the sacrifices, but God Himself, who provides atonement on this day to those who undertake the process of teshuvah. After the Temple, it is teshuvah which takes the place of the sacrificial rites of the day.
For the last two thousand years, the dominant theme of Yom Kippur has thus been teshuvah – the work of improving our behavior and transforming our character. And yet, the Torah reading remains Chapter 16 of Leviticus. Rather than hearing moral or religious exhortation – undeniably the theme of the haftarot of the day – we are treated to the minute details of the rites of the sacrifices. These Temple-based rites, while seemingly irrelevant to our contemporary concerns, can teach serious corrective lessons regarding sin and repentance.
It is widely believed that just as sin affects the spiritual well-being of the soul, so to the teshuvah is a process devoted wholly to the repairing of the soul. This is only partly true. The sacrificial rites of Yom Kippur tell another story: “And he [the High Priest] shall make an atonement for the Holy Sanctuary, and he shall make an atonement for the Tent of Meeting, and for the altar, and he shall make an atonement for the priests, and for all the people of the congregation” (Lev. 16: 33). It is first and foremost the Temple that must be cleansed, and only afterwards is the atonement of the people achieved.
The Torah assumes a basic metaphysical reality – sin pollutes. When the Children of Israel have sinned, the Temple itself becomes impure. This understanding of sin holds for us even today. When we sin, we hurt not only ourselves, we pollute our environment as well. If we have not respected our parents or our spouse, if we have betrayed a trust, or hurt others physically or emotionally, then our sin has damaged others and injured our relationships. If we have not honored Shabbat or the holidays properly, then the sanctity that these times hold for us has been diminished. The process of teshuvah requires that we recognize that improving ourselves is insufficient; we must also cleanse the reality that we have polluted.
An understanding of teshuvah that is limited to the self minimizes the work that needs to be done to set things right. This can have an insidious effect not only on us as individuals, but on our behavior as a community as well. Often, an abusive teacher or someone who has betrayed the public trust states that he has repented and asks for forgiveness and re-acceptance. If we understand repentance to be limited to self-improvement and repairing one’s relationship with God, then such claims may have traction. But if we understand what the work of teshuvah truly entails, we will rightfully demand that such people first demonstrate how they have worked to restore the lives, the trust, and the relationships that they have broken.
While Yom Kippur is a day that we devote fully to God and leave our this-worldly concerns behind, our process of teshuvah, like the cleansing of the Temple, can only be accomplished through a focus on this-world realities, a cleansing of our relationships and the realities around us that we have created.